Inspiration vs. Stagnation

photo: Sara Roizen

“If I stay long enough in the studio, just stay with the work even if it doesn’t feel great or seem satisfying or directional or conclusive, if I just stay to tend and garden, then my mind gradually yields control to the more automatic labor of painting, and with that comes a sweet spot in the process further down, a worn groove, a sense of ease.”

– Anna Schuleit

Let me paint a picture for you. (And stop me if it sounds familiar):

You’ve been meaning to get back to your creative project. Perhaps it’s a painting you started months ago that is staring at you from across the room. A recipe you’ve been meaning to try but are a little intimidated by. Making a handmade thank you card for your great aunt. Planting some new flowers in your garden. Dusting off your vinyl collection and actually sitting down to listen to an entire album uninterrupted. Writing a blog post. (Is it obvious that I’m also writing about myself here?) 

Here are a few things that might happen instead of jumping right into that creative project:

– You hop on to Pinterest just to grab a little inspiration and 2 hours later realize you’re still following link after link and looking at other people’s amazing projects. Oh, and your toddler just woke up from a nap so no time today for art!

– You decide that the pile of dishes or the toys on the floor are the top priority in the next hour.

– You have a ‘to do’ list, but the thing you are most passionate about doing today somehow ended up at the bottom of the list.

– It seems like too much fuss to gather your art supplies (substitute writing supplies, gardening, cooking, or any other word) and so you switch on the TV to gather a half hour of mindless but (you suppose) relaxation.

I’m just describing a pattern that I often find myself in. And to be clear, none of the above behaviors are bad. For me, it’s more about balance and if I’m honest with myself I can tell when I’m in a period of stagnation brought about by procrastination. There is something to be said for slowing down and doing less. This happens with the seasons, especially here in the Northeast. Nature slows down right about now and with less daylight hours most of us go into mini-hibernations of our own. 

Of course there are cycles of intense creativity and productivity to balance these times of stagnation. However, it seems almost too easy to fall into a habit of not creating. Creating can be anything at all and I don’t place a time value on it. Sometimes it’s ten minutes of doodling or even creating a rock sculpture in the backyard with my son. Or it could be marching up to my studio, cracking open my paints, and facing that gigantic blank canvas in the corner. 

Paint galore…

The inner therapist in me is getting curious and wondering about my resistance to creating. It’s certainly a theme that I continually explore with my art therapy clients. I think there are different reasons that pop up depending on the situation. Some of my themes are: not feeling worthy of making the time and space to create, being intimidated by the process, and placing a higher value on getting other things (like chores) done. Creating can feel like a luxury rather than a necessity. Sometimes I can almost delude myself into thinking that is true. But it’s not. I know this because if I am not making art or being creative in some way, my emotional and even physical self suffers. It doesn’t happen all at once, but I will gradually start to notice that something is ‘off.’ In my mind, it’s like taking a daily vitamin. You don’t realize how much it helps and also enhances your life until you stop taking it for a while. 

Getting back to my Pinterest example…
We all benefit from absorbing inspiration, whether it’s perusing Pinterest, taking a long walk, flipping through magazines, or strolling through a museum. The question is are we spending every second on gathering inspiration but avoiding getting down to our own creations? At this time in history we are surrounded by (and often bombarded) by a constant stream of images, opinions, and advertising. It seems to be increasingly difficult to unplug and go within. I will admit that when I’m in my studio I often feel an urge to hop into my iPhone and pull up a few more images for inspiration rather than sitting with myself in the uncertainty of creation. However, when I can sit in that uncomfortable place for a little while the anxiety is almost always replaced with excitement. It’s interesting how closely related anxiety and excitement can be isn’t it? The amount of energy that I am able to nurture and release when I make art is profound and deeply healing. All it takes is pushing past the stagnation. Doing that is simple, but not always easy. 

There is a humorous quote that many of us can probably relate to from Gene Fowler. He said about his creative process: “Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.” 

So while we’re on the subject of writing, here are four of my favorite books on nurturing and making space for our creative pursuits. Each book also addresses the obstacles to creating from a personal perspective. I hope that you check one or all of them out and let me know if they help spark your own creative process. Just remember – read a chapter at a time but create in between! ūüôā

Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide to Letting Go, Shaun McNiff
Art is a Way of Knowing, Pat B. Allen
Studio Art Therapy, Catherine Hyland Moon
Art & Fear, David Bayles & Ted Orland

Books to inspire your creative process

The Body in Art

Body silhouette example ~ Sara Roizen

‘Each body has it’s art…’
~ Gwendolyn Brooks

A few months ago during our Happiness Art Therapy Group with veterans we used a session to explore mind/body connection. I believe that art therapy automatically lends itself to the physical and bodily realm; the tactile exploration of art materials and the way our hands, arms, and posture all inform the creative process.

A reoccurring theme for many of the veterans I have worked with is a sense of loss in the physical realm. Most of these men and women were at the peak of their health during active service between training, drills, and everyday duties. This was required of them and many of my group members shared great pride in what they were able to accomplish during service. They often reminisced about surviving boot camp and being surprised by how hard they were able to push themselves and their bodies when necessary.

We began this particular art therapy group by exploring how the group members currently felt about their bodies. Were they at odds with their bodies or at peace with them? Which parts continued to serve them well and were there any parts that seemed to be failing them? Many of the members were currently dealing with chronic health issues, recovering from surgeries, and being treated for substance abuse or in recovery.

As we continued to talk about our bodies I handed each veteran a piece of paper with a pre-drawn body silhouette on it. I asked them to imagine that their body had a voice and was speaking to them right now. We then used drawing materials to fill in the silhouette with colors, shapes, and forms that symbolized how the body felt at this moment. I encouraged them to add words to represent the voice of the body. What advice did the body have? Which parts spoke up the most?

‘A-Part’ mixed media ~ Sara Roizen

I decided to create my own body silhouette (top image). Some of my body’s messages included ‘remember to keep my heart open,’ ‘remember to breathe,’ and ‘stretch.’ I also included ‘make more art’ because my body and mind feel it when I have not been creating for a while. Creating art both relaxes and rejuvenates my body and mind.

We finished the group by sharing each finished body silhouette. The veterans expressed surprise by some of the body parts that had ‘spoken up.’ I asked if they sensed any shift in body awareness or attitudes toward their bodies. Several group members said that they were realizing how often they were ‘at war’ with their own bodies instead of being kind to themselves. Some body parts and feelings just needed gentle attention and patience instead of being ignored or punished. Each member took the finished piece with them, to serve as a reminder for tuning into their bodies at least once a day.

A few years ago I led an art therapy group called Body Positive with HIV positive men. We traced each person’s body onto large paper and then they explored the physical and emotional sides of living with HIV through filling in the silhouettes. You can read about that group here:¬†Art Therapy & Body Image